Some Russians who lived in the USSR during the 1980s told me that the country was clearly doomed because of its inability to deliver goods and services to its citizens. An Estonian woman told me in Tallinn that 1980, the year of the Olympics in Russia, was the very first time she had seen bananas. After the Olympics were over, the bananas disappeared once again. But if economic disaster was the only condition for the USSR's collapse, the country would have folded right after WWII. The country's infrastructure was in a shambles and almost 27 million of its citizens were dead. The number of wounded soldiers was 15 million. The number of wounded civilians exceeded 5 million. The difference was the leadership: cruel, indifferent, and all-powerful. Stalin would not hesitate to employ machine guns against his people and they knew it.
Stalin's death in March 1953 left a power vacuum filled by a group of party leaders including Malenkov, Khrushchev, Molotov, and Beria. Beria, the head of the NKVD (later the KGB), was rightfully feared by the collective leadership and they plotted to remove him from power. Beria was known for kidnapping girls off the streets of Moscow and raping them. He once told a leading Soviet nuclear scientist that he would be much better if he had spent some time in the camps. Zhukov, the most competent and experienced general in the USSR during WWII, was asked for his proudest achievement. His answer was, "Arresting Beria." Beria was shot in December 1953.
Khrushchev eventually won the power struggle over Malenkov. Khrushchev was certainly not the psychopath that Stalin was, but he did not hesitate to violently put down revolutions in East Germany in June 1953 (then as part of the group) and in Budapest in 1956-1957. Khrushchev drastically reduced the number of prisoners in the gulag after his famous speech denouncing Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Khrushchev was removed from power by his party comrades in 1964 because of his boorish, sometimes dangerous, behavior and hare-brained schemes.
Brezhnev became the next leader in 1964. In 1968 Brezhnev violently suppressed the revolution in Prague, the Prague Spring. He supported North Vietnam. He invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He imposed martial law in Poland in December 1981. He was awarded the USSR's top medal, Hero of the Soviet Union, four times. Zhukov was the only other four-time winner, with the last award in 1956 being rumored to have been given for arresting Beria. But Brezhnev was given the medal on his birthdays because he was a vain old fool; he positively loved his medals, all 114 of them. He died in November 1982 as the classic example of decrepitude in office.
Andropov, the former head of the KGB, took over from Brezhnev and lasted 15 months before dying in office. He had been the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and witnessed Hungarian security service officers being hung from street lamps. Because of this experience, he was convinced that only armed force could ensure the survival of a communist state. He was actively involved in the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring. KAL 007 was shot down in September 1983. Plans were drawn to maim a defector, dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Andropov died in February 1984.
Chernenko became the next leader, but his health was poor from the very beginning; at Andropov's funeral, he had trouble reading the eulogy. His health problems prevented him from accomplishing much of anything, good or bad. He died in March, 1985.
Gorbachev became the next and last Soviet leader. He was 10 when Germany invaded the USSR and was the first leader to be born after the revolution. He was probably the most intelligent Soviet leader, with only Andropov approaching him in intelligence. He immediately started the reforms of glasnost (opening up) and perestroika (restructuring). He had radically different views of communism as compared to his predecessors. He believed in "socialism with a human face," as he naively believed Soviet citizens, given the choice, would retain the communist system. His close relationship with his wife Raisa humanized the image of the USSR and she accompanied him on his travels; this was a first for a Soviet leader. He was greatly affected by the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, leading to some distrust of the Soviet military-industrial complex (shades of Eisenhower).
In 1986 he started the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He told a Communist Party conference in 1988, "the imposition of a social system, a way of life, or policies from outside by any means, let alone military force, are dangerous trappings of the past." This speech effectively renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, the policy governing the ruling of Eastern Europe by force. In December 1988 at the UN he renounced the use of force in international affairs. In May 1989 Hungary started to unilaterally remove the barbed wire from the border between it and Austria. Gorbachev did not intervene. Hungary then completely removed the barriers. In June Poland allowed, and Gorbachev did not deny, Poles to have a free election, which ended up in a complete rout for the Communist Party. In July in Strasbourg, Gorbachev proclaimed: "The social and political order in some countries changed in the past, and it can change in the future too, but this is entirely a matter for each people to decide. Any interference in the internal affairs, or any attempt to limit the sovereignty of another state, friend, ally, or another, would be inadmissible." In August approximately 2 million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians held hands across the three countries in the Baltic Way demonstration against the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Mass demonstrations in the DDR started in Plauen in the autumn of 1989 and were not put down with machine guns and tanks as they were in China just a few months earlier in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Leipzig demonstrations actually started in 1982 when Christian Führer, the pastor of St Nicholas Church, started a Prayers for Peace every Monday evening. The Leipzig demonstrations reached a critical mass with 70,000 protestors on October 9, 1989, 120,000 one week later, and 300,000 one week after that. In November the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union was on its death bed.
In other words, the Soviet Union collapsed because Gorbachev refused to butcher his citizens and he declared this in public forums. He is hated by many Russians today because they know that he allowed their superpower to collapse. Certainly the pressure from Reagan helped, but no more than the pressure exerted by the first Polish Pope, John-Paul II. If Stalin, Khrushchev, or Andropov had still been in power in the late 1980s, none of the republics would have been allowed to retreat from communist domination. Reagan did not win the Cold War; Gorbachev allowed it to come to a peaceful conclusion.
Originally posted in 2009.